A Contract with the Devil
In addition to dramatic stage performances of Faust, Goethe’s masterpiece has also appeared internationally and on screen.
Some people may think that Faust is just a legend, or that there may have been such a person who lived in Europe sometime in the middle ages. However, many more people believe that the character was based on an alchemist named Johann Georg Faust (1480–1540) who was born near Weimar in Germany. His father was a pious Christian but Faust himself indulged in mystical powers.
The story goes that he signed a contract with the Devil by selling his soul, which is the legend imposed on Faust by later generations. By means of adding highly coloured details to his story, his experience was gradually handed down as a story with a perfect plot. In addition, as a negative example, it was included in religious books by Christians who admonished followers for adhering to certain beliefs. In the book Historia von D. Johann Fausten (“The Life of Dr. John Faust”), which appeared in the 16th century, the plot was a little different from the one before: After completing his deal with the Devil, Faust travelled everywhere, wallowing in carnal pleasures. In the end, he was led into hell by the Devil.
During the Renaissance Period in Europe, through his creative work entitled The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, British dramatist Christopher Marlowe gave Faust the classical image of a diligent learner, thus breaking with religious tradition. This was the first script that was derived from the legend of Faust. Later in the 18th century, when the Enlightenment Movement began in Germany, by virtue of his own theological background, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, a German playwright, let Faust compromise with God in one scene in his play. Later, Faust became the protagonist of the famous tragic play created by Goethe.
Goethe’s Lifelong Magnum Opus
In the autumn of 1749, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born to a wealthy family in Frankfurt, Germany. Even in his boyhood, he was very interested in literature and drama. He benefitted from the education given to him by his stern father and compassionate mother— especially his mother’s skilful and patient encouragement and guidance, which helped to broaden his literary understanding and insights of life.
At the age of 16, Goethe went to Leipzig to study. As he listened to lectures on poetic art and practised writing styles, he also studied painting. He also had a preliminary taste of love and merrily sang of the love that he was feeling.
In Leipzig, the second largest city in the eastern part of Germany, Goethe had his first encounter with the story of Faust. In a well-known restaurant called Auerbachs Keller, a mural on the wall that told Faust’s story left a very deep impression on young Goethe. Later, when he wrote Faust Part One, the first part of the full play, this restaurant was the only place mentioned in the story that was real.
This magnum opus lasted a lifetime. When Goethe began to create Faust in 1768, little could he have imagined that it would take him 64 years to complete! He finally completed it in 1831 and the very next year he passed away. In his long life, Goethe went through identity changes, including the shift from being the privy envoy of the legation to the privy counsellor of the Weimar Duchy. Yet what he found most difficult in his official career was that he could not defeat the baser instincts of the German people; on the contrary, their baser qualities defeated him. He felt he had no choice but to throw himself into research and painting, which he enjoyed greatly. But in this writer’s life, love was still essential. After maintaining an intimate bond with a lady named Charlotte von Stein for ten years, in 1806 he married Christiane Vulpius, with whom he lived for another ten.
Goethe’s various life experiences such as studying, having an official career and love all ended up being expressed in his great work, Faust.
A Voluminous Work
There is no one single plot that runs throughout the whole of Faust. Instead, the main story is developed through the personality of Faust as the protagonist, as well as the process of his dissatisfaction with reality and his unremitting pursuit of idealism. It is the rugged path of Faust’s spiritual exploration that really runs through the entire play.
Mephistopheles, a demon that acts as a representative of the Devil, made a bet with God that God would lose Faust in the end; God took the bet and told Mephistopheles that as long as Faust was alive, Mephistopheles could “lead him downward on your road.” It is this remark that sets up the overarching conflict of the narrative. Later, in order to obtain vast knowledge and eternal youth, Faust
had no scruples about selling his soul and signed a contract with the Devil. The Devil agreed to wait for Faust, whose soul would belong to the Devil after his death.
The plot of making a deal with the Devil reflected the inner conflicts of Europeans during the Middle Ages, when Europe was controlled by the Catholic church. The Europeans had a superstitious belief in magical arts and arcane knowledge, but in order to obtain these, they believed they had to sell their souls. This plot had an element of satire in it. For a long time, the story of Faust was regarded as that of religious persuasion. The tentative temptation imposed on Faust by Mephistopheles coincides with the snake and the forbidden fruit stealthily tasted by Eve in the Bible.
Embodied Goethe’s lifelong thought and artistic exploration, Faust is characterised by a magnificent and ingenious conception, as well as rich and erudite content. At the end of the tale, Faust obtained a new life by “returning to nature,” but mundane happiness such as eating, drinking, playing and making merry still failed to assuage the sorrow in his heart. Faust experienced many ups and downs, circling between hankering after lust and restraining his desire.
Mephistopheles repeatedly induced Faust to work in the service of officials, and he ended up giving up such transient pursuits and went away. He finally found love and married Helen of Troy. Through his lifelong exploration of trying to control nature, in the end he found inner contentment. Faust’s exploration consisted of five different tortuous courses. He always tried to break away from the shackles of power and overcome both internal and external conflicts. He was able to repudiate all the despicable things of life and his own erroneous thinking, and threw himself into seeking love and truth.
Europe, a bourgeois intellectual class emerged that was dissatisfied with the status quo and sought to explore the meaning of life and social idealism. Thus, the spiritual ordeal Faust underwent can be regarded as his own personal experience of that period of European capitalism and of real life in Germany, which of course represented Goethe’s own life and artistic practice.
Faust includes 25 scenes without any acts. The second volume is composed of 27 scenes divided into five acts. By integrating realism with romanticism, the play reflects the feelings of the rising bourgeoisie during the European Renaissance. When this great work of German literature was published, it demonstrated the boundless potential of the German language. What’s more, it occupied a prominent position as one of four major European classical works, the other three being the Homeric epics, Dante’s Divine Comedy and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Riddles and Spirits of Faust in China
“When I was sent to work in the rural areas in Shaaxi Province between 1969 and 1975, I borrowed this book from an educated youth who graduated from Beijing No. 57 High School. He worked 15 kilometres away and was always showing off to me, saying that he owned this book. So I walked to his home and asked him to lend me the book, saying that I would definitely return it. But I was so delighted with the book that I could hardly bear to let it out of my hands. Later, he got so impatient that whenever he went to the market he would tell other people to ask me to give the book back to him. After some time, he was still so worried about the book that he walked 15 kilometres to my house just to fetch the book. I said, ‘ You came all this way just to get the book back, so I’ll return it to you.’” This book was none other than Goethe’s Faust, and the man who walked 15 kilometres on a mountain road to borrow the book was Xi Jinping, later president of China.
President Xi once said to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a group of German sinologists: “German literary works, including those by Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, are magnificent. At the age of 14, I read Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther and later read Faust. At that time, there were three Chinese versions of Faust. It was really a bit difficult for one to understand Faust because it contains so much imagination.” The Germans responded, saying, “Even some of us Germans can‘t understand it, so it’s no surprise you could not!”
The translation by Guo Moruo (1892– 1978) published by the People’s Literature
Publishing House in 1959, the translation by Qian Chunqi (1921–2010) published by the Shanghai Translation Publishing House in 1982, and the translation by Dong Wenqiao (1909–1993) published by Fudan University Press in 1983.
The demon Mephistopheles became well known throughout the world because of Faust. In contemporary times, this figure has become more divorced from the original text, gradually becoming a symbol used in popular culture. According to German writer Thomas Mann, music and demons are intertwined, for music is by its nature “demoniac.” Therefore, the protagonist in his Doctor Faustus is a composer. Through the composer’s exploration into “demonism,” Thomas Mann expressed his thinking on modernity in Germany.
In 1994, an experimental version of Faust was co-produced by the National Theatre of China and Beijing’s Goethe Institute, and directed by Lin Zhaohua. The vanguard stage setting featured a “heavy metal” look, with a moveable metal crane, a giant statue of Venus, a converted military jeep, a big remoteoperated airship, and rock musician Wang Feng and his band playing their song “No. 43 Baojia Street.” Actors Han Tongsheng and Ni Dahong played the young Faust and the old Faust, respectively, and director Lou Naiming played the demon Mephistopheles.
The 1994 version of Faust was performed in China, another stage play of the same name directed by Xu Xiaozhong, who was 81 years old at the time, was performed at the National Centre for the Performing Arts. On the huge off-white screen were undulating remote mountains with floating clouds. God sat in the middle with his loyal angels standing on both sides. The sound of the solemn music The Creation, composed by Joseph Haydn, played in the background. “If the history of world literature and art lacked Goethe, it would be incomplete. If one could not get to know Goethe through Faust, he could not be thoroughly understood,” said Xu.
To preserve the original form of Faust, Xu Xiaozhong only cut out some details of the story without revising the original play. “It is in fact a kind of recreation for actors to chant the script just as they recite poems, because each of them will add his own understanding and feelings. Faust lives in the heart of everyone because everyone is surrounded by idealism and desire,” Xu said. The play, brought to Beijing by the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre, focused on the main events in Faust’s life, in particular his experiences of love, which are simple but full of symbolic meaning. Faust was played by an “old hand” named Xu Chengxian, a famous performing artist who was over 60 at that time. He portrayed both the young and the old Faust smoothly. Mephistopheles, the demon, was portrayed by actor Zhou Yemang, who once played the role of Lin Chong in the famous novel The Water Margin. The evil and ugliness of the “demon” under the red coat was portrayed in a relaxing manner, which made audience feel hatred towards him. His performance was both skilful and sophisticated.
As part of the First Lao She International Theatre Festival, Faust was performed by the Slovene National Theatre Drama company at the Beijing Capital Theatre. The three acts included Faust entering into a contract with the Devil, his pursuit of love, and his death. The stage design, done in Gothic style, used an interactive format combining water and light, which gave spectators a novel sensory experience.
Apart from the splendid dramatic stage performances of Faust, Goethe’s masterpiece has also appeared on the world stage and on screen in various forms. For example, the well-known composer Franz Liszt created a symphony entitled Faust, which put the images in Faust to music. Liszt not only consulted the work of Goethe, but also studied the folk legend as well as other literary works about Faust. French composer CharlesFrançois Gounod also created a five-act opera of the same name by adapting Goethe’s Faust.
Jean- Christophe Maillot, who became famous by combining classic fairy tales such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake with modern ballet, directed The Monte- Carlo Ballet in a wonderful performance of Faust for Chinese audiences at the National Centre for the Performing Arts. Having previously directed Gounod’s opera Faust at the Hessian State Theatre of Wiesbaden in Germany, Maillot specially chose Liszt’s symphony as music for the ballet. “It is a challenging and significant thing to attempt to express this philosophical subject in different artistic forms,” Maillot said.
In 2015, Faust was performed as a Peking Opera by the China National Peking Opera Company, in what was a stunning masterwork. Scriptwriter Li Meini said that before working on the script, she could well imagine the difficulty of adapting such a great work into Peking Opera. This performance of Faust used a unique form to question the nature of humanity while at the same time revealed the tragic source of suffering: desire.
In the 1926 film version of Faust, directed by German director Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, Faust was returned to popular culture. Through the use of grotesque expressionism and brilliant special effects, the film still deeply delved into the Faustian theme of “redemption and love,” though it lacked a certain dramatic tension.
A stage drama of Faust
Faust (a film) directed by Aleksandr Sokurov